SPARTA — Even when he was winning a career-best five races in 2002 and a series championship the following year, Matt Kenseth's reputation was of the understated kind, the sort of driver who would hang around the pack all day and often wind up in the top 10 without generating much notice.
That hallmark steadiness is still very much a valued trait in this Kenseth's first season with Joe Gibbs Racing. What has shifted in the man known for his quiet consistency is how forceful he has become this year in those crucial stages that determine who visits Victory Lane.
One of the many luxuries strong race teams boast is the faith they can gamble big without much trepidation. A gutsy fuel-only call on his team's final pit stop coupled with a late spin by points leader Jimmie Johnson combined to help lift Kenseth to his series-high fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win of the year in Sunday's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.
Johnson's No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet had been the dominant car all afternoon in the race that was postponed a day due to heavy rains Saturday evening. The five-time Cup series champion led 182 of the 267-lap test but was undone with 20 to go when he lost air and spun in Turn 2 after restarting second on the inside of Kenseth following the final round of pit stops.
Kenseth had been a top 10 fixture all day, but what ultimately put him up front to begin with was a gamble by crew chief Jason Ratcliff to take no fresh tires in their final trip down pit lane.
Having clean air — not to mention the No. 48 Lowe's monster out of the way — helped Kenseth's old tires on his No. 20 Dollar General Toyota endure over Kentucky's rough surface to notch his third win this year on a 1.5-mile track.
"When we rolled out (after taking fuel only) I thought in my head we had about a five-percent chance of winning if something didn't happen to the 48," said Kenseth, who has already earned his most wins in a single season since 2006. "But if we would have got two tires and came out behind the 48, unless he broke I thought we had zero chance.
"Obviously you look back and it's a great call. It was the only one that gave us a chance to win. It's always fun to win, no matter how you can win."
Though Johnson maintains the series points lead with Kenseth sitting fifth, Kenseth's four wins to Johnson's three actually swings some of the balance of power in his favor with nine races remaining before the 10-race Chase for the Cup finale. With each "regular season" win worth 3 points apiece, Kenseth would theoretically be the points leader when reseeding is done were the Chase were to begin today.
That Kenseth already had three prior wins at Las Vegas, Kansas, and Darlington to hang his hat on this year was part of the reason Ratcliff was game to fuel-only risk to begin.
"We talked about it after our third victory that we could be aggressive on our calls," Ratcliff said. "We've been aggressive on our calls all year but today was a perfect opportunity to take advantage of that. And Matt hung on and drove his heart out."
Jamie McMurray finished in second with Clint Bowyer third. Joey Logano and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five.
Johnson charged back after that late spin to finish ninth but pointed the finger at Kenseth for causing the pack behind him to bottle up on the restart.
"The No. 20 broke the pace car speed which you aren't supposed to do but they aren't calling guys on that," Johnson vented.
"I certainly didn't feel like I did anything wrong from where I was," Kenseth responded. "But you know after dominating all day and you have a problem at the end ... I imagine it's frustrating."
Where Kentucky was one of five wins Brad Keselowski whipped off during his championship season in 2012, Saturday's race was an extension of the funk his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford has been mired in of late.
Keselowski, who had just one top-10 finish in his last nine races, was sent spinning on Lap 49 when Kurt Busch went onto the apron on the front stretch and sliding back up into Keselowski, setting off a multi-car wreck that also collected Greg Biffle, who slammed into Keselowski from behind.
The mishap caused the race to be red flagged for 18:37 — and brought about an apology from Busch, not that such words help Keselowski's cause to secure a spot in the Chase.
"I know he didn't intentionally wreck me but ... I'm still wrecked," said Keselowski, who did return to the track on Lap 154 while the race was under caution to finish 33rd. "He is smarter than that, he knows better than that."
With five mile-and-a-half tracks on the Chase schedule, the strength of Kenseth's intermediate program this season could rightfully inspire even more boldness from his team.
"It's been incredible," Kenseth said of his 2013 season to date. "We've had some moments that tested us already this season but it's great to have the four wins. Hopefully we'll keep it rolling."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676.